It’s a well-established fact that the ’60s were a strange time. From the massive cultural shifts to the tenuous social and political climate to an unfavorable, unwinnable war, it seemed every day was yet another challenge. Much like our current climate, the daily news is approached with some level of trepidation and we seek outlets and distractions in our media, both social and traditional.
From this similarly tumultuous climate came the very ‘60s concept of camp. This wholly un-self-seriousness approach to television, movies, music and, as chronicled in Hero-A-Go-Go: Campy Comic Books, Crimefighters & Culture of the Swinging Sixties, comic books served as a form of light-hearted escapism from the harsh realities of the rapidly changing world. A reliance on the silly and outright absurd helped lessen the near constant levels of anxiety permeating the culture.
While television and film are often the most remarked upon in terms of camp culture — how can they not with things like Batman and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and other, similarly absurdist bits of pop cultural ephemera? — there was also a great sea change in the comic book world. Coming off of the oppressive restrictions imposed by the Comics Code Authority beginning in 1954, the ‘60s saw a gradual, tentative loosening of codes and what was deemed appropriate and not for youthful consumption. Though it would take several more decades to return to anything even remotely resembling the mystery and horror books that helped facilitate the perceived need for the CCA in the first place, the comic books of the ’60s would begin to make their way out of the milquetoast rut of the preceding decade.
A lot of this had to do with the meteoric rise of Marvel and its books dealing with more realistic, humanistic subject matter within the context of its superhero titles. This approach stood in sharp contrast to DC’s more CCA-approved approach. In between all this, however, were a number of smaller publishers (Tower, Archie, Belmont, et. al.) that managed to split the difference between the two, resulting in an odds and sods assortment of colorful, campy characters. The Batman television program can be cited as a flashpoint for the rise of camp, its live-action bringing the BIFF!, BAM! and POW! from the page to the small screen with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Quite naturally, former DC comics editor Michael Eury uses Batman and his early hero-worship of its star, the late Adam West, as his jumping off point into the world of comic book camp. Here was not only a mainstream television program that turned into a ratings bonanza, but also one of the first truly successful comic book adaptations for television (and yes, Superman had been first, but it can be argued that it never had the same cultural cache as Batman). Debuting in 1966, Batman, according to Eury, helped usher in the idea of camp into the mainstream. While it had existed to varying degrees previously, it wasn’t until the tumultuous ‘60s that it truly took hold within the broader cultural dialogue.
Exhaustively researched and thoroughly enjoyable, Hero-A-Go-Go takes readers through all kinds of bizarre comics, story arcs, and one-off characters that could only come about when camp was king. When else would it have seemed the right time to introduce a character like, say, DC’s B’Wanna Beast, essentially a Batman of the jungle? The ‘60s also saw the not-so-triumphant return of characters long since abandoned, like Captain Marvel — somewhat ironically not a Marvel title — Dollman, the Shadow and the Fighting American and his trusty sidekick, Speedboy. This latter title in particular Eury points to as “the father of the Camp Age”, with its creator Jack Kirby responsible for a mind-boggling number of titles in the ’60s alone, many of which were firmly rooted in camp.
And if these titles weren’t enough, Eury takes a look at nearly every ___man that came about. Aquaman, Blooperman, Plastic Man, Bee-Man, Fatman, to list but a few, are each given a respectful overview along with many of the artists and writers behind these less-than-memorable titles. Anyone enamored of the so-called Silver Age will find much to love throughout Hero-A-Go-Go’s visual-heavy cataloging of the decade’s campiest pop cultural ephemera.
Though comics serve as the book’s central focus, Eury focuses on the medium’s expansion into the worlds of television, film and popular music. From Jan and Dean Meet Batman to Lost in Space, Jerry Lewis films to The Archies (both of whom found themselves palling around with or facing off against superheroes of one kind or another), camp seemed to be everywhere, offering a much-needed escapism for both adults and kids alike. Through a series of essays and interviews with some of camp’s biggest names — Lost in Space’s Bill Mumy chiefly among these — Eury provides a 360-degree look at the cultural in which camp arose, focusing on its origins, its cultural saturation, and eventual dissolution as the Swinging Sixties gave way to the Me Decade.
From the most obscure (Herbie the Fat Fury) to the most head-scratchingly bizarre (Super LBJ and The Great Society comic book) and nearly all points in between, Hero-A-Go-Go: Campy Comic Books, Crimefighters & Culture of the Swinging Sixties offers a fun and light-hearted — though thoroughly in-depth and very much in keeping with the spirit of the times — exploration into an era looked upon with both amusement and bemusement. Canny connoisseurs of camp can consider this to be the closest they’ll come to the quintessentially campy qualities of the Swinging Sixties.